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TOKYO--It's obvious that Apple's wares are to digital music what Sony's Walkman is to tape, CD, or MiniDisc--and that's got Sony worried.

Although the Tokyo-based electronics giant has been slow to retaliate, we're seeing (and hearing) some action of late: In midyear, Sony released a hard-disk-based player under the Walkman brand in Japan. But the device, and its successor launched in October, failed to make a significant dent in IPod sales. Now Sony is back with version 3, which, for the first time, supports the MP3 file format as well as its own ATRAC3 files. That might draw the attention of customers who've been put off by Sony's "ATRAC3 or nothing" stance.

The new NW-HD3 goes on sale during December in Japan and the UK and is my choice for the coolest product of the month, thanks largely to its new MP3 support. But that's not all: Sony's also marketing a trio of new Aiwa flash-memory players, and new multimedia products are coming from Sharp, Toshiba, and Yamaha, among others.

Sony Hard-Disk Walkman

Sony NW-HD3

It's finally here! Sony has released a hard-disk version of its Walkman that supports the MP3 file format.

The NW-HD3 is otherwise no different from Sony's 20GB NW-HD2 Walkman, which was launched only two months ago. Sony has finally added MP3 support after much criticism by reviewers and customers, since MP3 has become the standard for ripped or copied digital music. The pricing is a little strange: Sony will sell the device for $405, which is essentially the same price as the previous version plus the software upgrade fee; but of course this device has the new software installed. It will go on sale in the UK and Japan in December and in the rest of Europe early next year; Sony is considering a launch in other Asian nations and the U.S.

For another take on Sony's new player, read "Sony and MP3, Together at Last."

Aiwa Digital Music Player

Sony Aiwa player

The three latest flash memory-based digital music players to be sold under Sony's Aiwa brand offer up to 100 hours of playback on a single AAA alkaline battery.

The devices play MP3s and Sony's ATRAC sound files. The XDM-S710BT can connect to a wireless headset using Bluetooth, and both it and the XDM-S700 have 256MB of storage. A cheaper model, the XDM-S500, has 128MB of memory.

All three models are small enough to slip easily into a shirt pocket: just under an inch in diameter and 3.5 inches long, and weighing 2 ounces with the battery. The players are on sale now in Japan; the low-end XDM-S500 costs about $207 and the high-end XDM-S710BT costs $310. Sony plans to release the players in Europe and Asia in 2005, but has not determined marketing plans for the U.S.

Canon's Network Camera

Canon VB-C50Fi

Keeping a remote eye trained on something has never been easier. Canon's latest network camera packs a 340,000-pixel image pickup with a server and Ethernet adapter to provide an all-in-one solution for remote monitoring.

The VB-C50Fi provides images of up to VGA resolution at between 0.1 and 30 frames per second. Users can log in to see the images from their PCs across the network, and the camera can support up to 50 clients simultaneously. The camera has a 26X optical zoom and 12X digital zoom. The VP-C50Fi is on sale in Japan priced at $1340, and is scheduled for release in the U.S. and Europe in January.

Sharp 3G Cell Phone

Sharp SH901iC

The latest range of 3G cell phone handsets from NTT DoCoMo, such as Sharp's SH901iC, can double as TV remote controls. They can even access, via I-mode wireless Internet, up to eight days of television schedules; and they can program video recorders with the touch of a button. The great news for Japanese consumers is that the service is free, except for the packet data fees to collect the information.

The Sharp handset also features a viewer for Microsoft Office and PDF files, a 2-megapixel camera, stereo speakers, and an embedded non-contact smart card that can be used in place of a commuter pass or e-cash card. It's compatible with NTT DoCoMo's Wideband Code Division Multiple Access network in Japan. It won't work elsewhere, however, so there are no plans for overseas sales. It's available now in Japan priced at about $270.

Toshiba Combo TV/Hard Drive/DVD Recorder

Toshiba RD-17V1

Toshiba has combined two of its hottest-selling products into a single unit, the RD-17V1.

The product brings together a 17-inch LCD flat-panel television and a digital video recorder with built-in hard drive and DVD burner. The drive's 160GB capacity is big enough to store up to 284 hours of video in the highest compression mode. The optical drive can record onto DVD-R, -RW and -RAM media.

The LCD has 1280 by 768 (WXGA) resolution and can display high-definition images from an external source. It is already on sale in Japan, priced at $1450; Toshiba has no plans to sell it overseas.

Sharp Blu-ray Disc Recorder

Sharp BD-HD100

With the December release of the BD-HD100, Sharp becomes the third electronics manufacturer to put a Blu-ray Disc recorder on the market.

The BD-HD100 can record standard and high-definition digital TV broadcasts onto 25GB Blu-ray Discs or an internal 160GB hard drive. The machine has two slots, one for DVDs and one for Blu-ray Discs; you can copy between the two optical discs and the hard drive (except with copy-protected content).

Sharp's device is the first Blu-ray Disc recorder to come with a High-Definition Multimedia Interface connector. HDMI supplies an uncompressed digital video and audio signal in a single cable and is being promoted as an interconnection standard for HDTV-compliant devices. The BD-HD100 will cost about $3140 upon its release in Japan in mid-December; Sharp has no plans to sell it overseas.

Sharp Mebius Notebook

Sharp Mebius PC-MP40H

The latest notebook in Sharp's Mebius line is small but packs a punch.

The new PC-MP40H has a 10.4-inch LCD and weighs just under 3 pounds. It's based on a 1.4-GHz Transmeta Efficeon processor. On the top of its features list is a dual CD-R/RW and DVD-ROM optical drive. The notebook is designed for entertainment, and you can play music or movie discs with the touch of a button. The machine also features 802.11b/g wireless networking, with Atheros Super G support for higher-speed communications between compatible equipment. The PC-MP40H is on sale now in Japan and costs $1940. Sharp doesn't plan to sell it overseas.

Yamaha Sound Projector

Flat-panel televisions are great for bringing some style to a room. But sometimes adding a surround-sound speaker system does the opposite: Speakers clutter corners and cables run around the room to feed them.

The Yamaha Sound Projector--marketed as the YSP-1 in Japan--aims to simplify this. It's a single unit about a yard long that is designed to sit under a television. The unit houses 42 speakers that send sound around a room so that the result at the sofa is the same as a multispeaker system. It goes on sale in Japan, the U.S., and Europe in December and costs approximately $1530 in all markets.

Martyn Williams is Tokyo bureau chief for the IDG News Service, a consortium of IDG publications.
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